The Kentucky Derby is always the first Saturday of May. I know it is a horse race, but today I was only interested in the filly from New Jersey named Rosie. That would be Rosie Napravnik, the only female jockey in today’s race.
“Must be five o’clock somewhere” is a familiar phrase heard in the South, especially on Derby Day. Mint Juleps are the drink of choice and Jefferson County, where Churchill Downs is located, is a wet county even on a dry Derby Day. I can only imagine the consumption of bourbon, mint and simple syrup that make up this drink of the day when it rains. Today it rained most of the day, creating a track that was wet, sloppy and slick, making the 139th Run for the Roses a real horse race.
I know Churchill Downs well. I worked at the fifty dollar window here in the summer before I started medical school. Gamblers at the track are a superstitious lot and when they had a win from the gal with the grin they kept coming back for more. Medical school costs were looming and I needed the tips so I made even losers happy, day after day, at that window. My favorite line was, “When you win, I win”. Then the closer, “Don’t you love it that you are helping a young woman pay for medical school?”
These were exhilarating times for women who were ready to fight for their place in professional schools, to fight for equal pay for equal work, and to fight for the right to be a jockey. In 1972, it was still news that a girl from a rural Kentucky family could become a doctor and that women could ride a mount in the Derby.
In 1970 Diane Crump was the first woman to race in the Kentucky Derby while riding a horse named Phantom. Crump came in fifteenth in a seventeen-horse race. She won more than 230 victories on the track before retiring at 36. Women do know that someone has to be the first to have the courage and determination to demand a place at the table. Crump might not have been a jockey if Kathy Kusner had not successfully sued the Maryland State Racing commission for her jockey license in 1968, two years before.
Seven women have now ridden in the Derby. None has won. Today the 25-year-old Rosie Napravnik was the woman of the hour in the most exciting two minutes in sports. This was her second time to ride in the most famous horse race in the world, the Kentucky Derby.
Napravnik is one of the best jockeys riding. CNN reported that she is “the fifth highest earning jockey on the circuit today”. She has had 192 firsts this year and has finished in the top three 46% of the times, according to Equibase, a thoroughbred racing information site. This 113-pound New Jersey native has been described as fearless and as a jockey with both soft hands and an intuitive connection with her mount.
In spite of the media frenzy, Napravnik seemed focused in her interviews, not on her role as the only woman jockey, but as a determined rider, ready to help her mount, Mylute. She was both poised and realistic in her responses regarding her chances in interviews before the race.
Mylute came out of the gate from the number six post position in a field of 19 adrenalin fueled horses who had to run the mile and a quarter race. The odds for this horse to win were only 13 to l. It was a crowded field on a dangerous track.
Rosie had been number nine in the finish for her first Derby. Today she wore silks the color of daffodils making her easy to spot as she navigated her way through a sea of mud, filled with an unusually large number of horses. She finished fifth, a more than respectable accomplishment on a mount that was not in the same league as she was. It was the highest finish ever by a female jockey.